Heavy Metal Madness: Decalcomania Mania
One of my favorite specialty printing methods is that of the water-transfer decal, those difficult-to-apply transparent appliqués that have tortured model makers and RV owners for decades. And no application of the decal art form is better known than that of the travel decals popular in American culture throughout the great era of road trips and driving vacations. You can still find travel decals at many roadside souvenir stands or airport gift shops, but today they are more likely to be simply color stickers than true decals, which are more sensitive to the ravages of time, moisture and other storage issues.
Two great examples of early decal art. You can almost feel the sunshine and the cold.
But in their heyday, water-transfer travel decals adorned the side and back windshields of automobiles, trucks, campers and every other form of conveyance that took families from one roadside attraction to another. There were decals for every state, for many tourist spots, for restaurants and even for churches and cemeteries. People were proud of their travels in those days and a family's vacation prowess was often demonstrated by a covered rear window, bumper or other vehicle surface.
Every place had its own decal -- states, cities, streets, and neighborhoods. If you could drive there, someone had a decal for sale.
Like postcards, travel decals were keepsakes and reminders of people and places visited -- ten or fifteen cent mementoes that said to the world "I've been there!"
Beauty and the Beast. From Santa Monica to Knott's Berry Farm, stickers showed of the best of both.
But the decal wasn't conceived as a souvenir -- the original point to the process of transferring one image to another using glue and transparent substrate, was much more practical, if not particularly successful.
The Prevention of Re-Use
In 1863, a prolific New York inventor named Henry Lowenberg was looking for a way to prevent people from re-using postage stamps by taking them off one envelope and applying them to another. He invented and patented a method for creating transparent paper such that a design printed upon it could be viewed from both sides. Gum would be applied to the printed side, and once affixed to an envelope, any attempt to remove the transparent paper would leave the design behind.
Lowenberg anticipated the other uses for this invention, describing in his patent application the potential of using these transfers to adhere designs to "paper, glass, wood or any other desirable surface." The process was named "decalcomania."
Lowenberg's invention was considered a standard for postage stamps, and experiments were done, though no stamps using the decalcomania process were ever issued by the United States Post Office. Lowenberg also received patents for other methods of preventing re-use, including using water-soluble sizing that would smear when any effort was made to eliminate a cancel mark, and a method for printing directly on adhesive so that if an attempt was made to soak off a stamp, it would be destroyed.
Though none of these methods were adopted for stamp manufacturing, Lowenberg's idea of transferring images via a clear substrate certainly caught on, and decalcomania, or "decals" became a common way to adhere images to unusual surfaces that could not typically be printed on directly.
Cheap and Dirty
Printing on clear substrate and then applying gum glue was not a sophisticated process in the beginning, so many early decal examples, and those of the travel-decal era are extremely crude by modern printing standards. But to me, of course, it is this simplicity and lack of detail that makes them so charming.
Typical of the genre -- simple graphics, bold colors and crude printing technique.
The bulk of decals are printed using screen-printing methods, which does not necessarily rule out fine detail, but makes it more difficult to achieve, especially in a product that sold for ten or fifteen cents, as many decals did. Poor registration, bold colors and unsophisticated graphics were the norm in travel decal art.
I've seen petrified wood, and it doesn't look anything like this, but the drawing of the Queen Elizabeth is fairly accurate.
The travel-decal industry was populated by a number of manufacturers -- most notably a New Jersey printing company marketed under the trade name Impko, who's logo showed an alien-like smiling imp. Impko was by no means limited to travel decals -- they printed all kinds of other wonderful art, bicycle and cartoon decals, but those are the subject of another column. Sadly, Impko is long gone, and the trademark was abandoned many years ago.
A classic IMPKO decal from Key West Florida. Price: 15 cents.
Other popular brands of travel decals were Lindgren-Turner, Baxter-Lane, Enco and Goldfarb -- I couldn't find any that were still manufacturing these items, however, and the golden age of travel decals is clearly over. Almost all of these companies packaged their products in small wax-paper bags, designed to keep the decals dry. The slightest amount of moisture and the decal would peel or stick prior to the intended application.
Stuck on You
Anyone who every tried to apply these decals can attest to the difficulty in getting them flat and straight, without air-bubbles before they dried permanently in place. And they scratched easily unless coated with varnish or other fixative. It was often prudent to buy several copies to assure one would come out correctly.
All the instructions in the world couldn't make applying a decal successfully easy. A well-aligned decal was a real art form.
Decals, of course, are not limited in use to the rear windows of Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers or Ford Country Squire wagons -- they are an important part of industrial printing and still highly used today. Surfboards, bicycles, all kinds of machines, glass and other surfaces that need printing or imagery are often still made using a decalcomania process. The printing has gotten more sophisticated, as have the glues and substrates, but the core process remains very similar to what Henry Lowenberg dreamed up back in 1863.
Four examples of Florida hot spots, memorialized on windshields across America.
A New Life for Decalcomania
Thanks to inkjet printing, decals are enjoying a resurgence of sorts among model makers, restorers or just plain hobbyists. You can now buy decal paper of various sorts to print in your home printer, often with very good results. One good site for these supplies is decalpaper.com, where you can buy laser or inkjet decal paper, ceramic decal paper, decal paper to use in making soap or candles, tattoo paper and other transfer-method papers and supplies.
And if you would like to see a great travel decal collection, visit the site of Motelfan a Dutch collector who has quite a few examples on his site. And San Francisco artist Bill Selby has a wonderful online collection of other vintage Impko decal examples.
These are two of my favorite decals, also from Dutch Collector Sjef van Eijk.
IMPKO decals were likely the most popular, and included not just travel spots, but cartoons, wacky characters and lots of very pop art for the time.
The era when travel was a novelty, and something to show off, has clearly passed. You don't see luggage stickers and trunk appliqués anymore either. But to me, there is still nothing like pulling up behind a slow-moving Volkswagen bus and being entertained by the variety of places the driver has been. Those were the days when 15 cents bought a lot of memories, and having eaten at the Mars Drive-in in Modesto was something you were proud of and wanted to display.
Bubbles, my favorite whale, was the star at Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes California. From the Dutch site Motelfan.
Read more by Gene Gable.